Balancing the guitar’s frequency within a band mix is not easy for guitarists. We like it loud, because that’s how guitar sounds best. While easier in a trio, the typical quartet/quintet band setups can provide a real challenge for guitar players who are always being told, “Turn down!” Why? Well, there are several factors that contribute to a poorly heard guitar mix.
The Fletcher-Munson Curve & Guitar Frequency
Tube guitar amps don’t sound optimal unless they are at a certain volume level. Call it an opinion, but to tube amp owners…it’s a fact. Why?
There is something called the Fletcher-Munson curve that scientifically explains this. In a nutshell, it explains that the human ear is dependent on loudness for clarity of hearing. Low and high frequencies (the body and presence of guitar tone) are heard better at louder volumes. Here’s a quote from Mack Amps that sums up guitar tube amp tone that is turned down in volume:
You will hear a tone with noticeably muffled highs and dramatically faded lows. The ‘body’ and ‘presence’ of your tone has been greatly diminished.
When this happens (especially noticed during guitar solos), guitarists can’t feel their tone. The body and presence are gone. It’s uninspiring, guitar playing suffers, and the music suffers. Other instruments such as bass and drums don’t experience this nearly as much as electric guitar. Bass naturally sits back in the mix and is more of a frequency that is felt rather than heard in high detail by the listener. Drums cover most of frequency spectrum, from kick to cymbals, so they never get lost. The guitar mix, however, is highly dependent.
Guitar Mix Competing with Drums
While battling the Fletcher-Munson curve, the guitar’s frequency still has to compete with drums (especially during solos).
The guitar volume needs to be at least at the same volume as the drummer’s cymbals, which wash out the high-end frequency spectrum of a band mix. This can provide a challenge when balancing volumes across all the dynamics of a song: intro, verse, chorus, solo, etc.
The drummer’s snare has a different range (more of a mid-range timbre), but also competes with the guitar mix…often drowning it out during snare rolls. At the same time, the vocals need to be heard, so lead guitar riffs and snare rolls cannot be louder than the vocals or they’ll be drowned out.
Having a two-guitar mix in a band is a very common band setup. Two guitars open up a wide range of possibilities:
- Harmonized guitar lines
- One rhythm guitar, one lead guitar
- Dueling leads/solos
- Increased ambient effects
While there are benefits, there are obvious drawbacks as well. Most importantly, two guitars can muddy up the mid-range quite easily…disallowing either guitarist to hear himself (or herself) very clearly. This is especially true when both guitarists play the same guitar or have the same types of pickups (Les Paul: humbucker, Telecaster: single coils, Stratocaster: single coils).
Beyond tonality, both guitarists are striving to hear the intricacies of their playing just as they would when playing alone. This causes the guitars to fight against each other, and each guitarists slowly turns up the volume as a result. What happens then? “Turn down!”
Lastly, we need to address the use of effects. Dirt boxes (distortion, fuzz, and overdrive), even the most high fidelity boutique pedals, wash out the mix more than a clean guitar tone. When there’s two guitars raging fuzz tones, it’s nearly impossible to differentiate between the two.
How to Balance the Guitar Frequency: Improving the Mix
There are steps you can take to better balance the guitar mix within your band.
Use Compression to Balance Guitar Mix
Guitar compression pedals can greatly help a guitar have a more defined frequency within the mix. Guitar compression pedals focus your tone by increasing the loudness of the softer notes, and limiting the loudness of the louder notes. With mild compression (set your Sustain knob from 1/4 to 1/2 the way up), the guitar’s tone will be better balanced through the mix with only mild limiting. The guitar tone is more easily heard across the various parts of the song (intro, verse, chorus, solo, etc.), and there is still dynamic range to play with.
With such a mild compression setting, the compressor pedal can be left on all the time in order to equally balance the guitar frequency through every part of every song. Some choice guitar compression pedals include:
- Diamond Compressor
- Analogman Comprossor
- Keeley Compressor
Use a Boost to Balance Guitar Solos
Sometimes compression pedals can feel a bit too limiting when taking a guitar solo. Some guitarists will need to slightly increase their volume when it comes time to solo. This can be achieved through either an extra compressor pedal switched to only for solos (perhaps with a higher Sustain level), or simply through a dedicated boost. In this scenario, the boost is turned on only for solos and riffs where the guitar needs to stand out front.
Most boost pedals come with only one knob, and this volume/gain knob should be set just higher than unity gain (your unaffected volume level with the boost turned off). Some choice guitar boost pedals include:
- Zvex Super Hard On
- Keeley Katana Boost
- Keeley/Legendary Tones Time Machine Boost
Balance Effects Wisely with Multiple Guitars
In a two guitar setup, effects need to be discussed and balanced appropriately throughout each song. If a rhythm guitarist is playing with a wide fuzz tone in the background, taking up a lot of room in the mix, then the lead guitarist may want to consider a more cutting overdrive tone for single note lead lines. A searing mid range single note lead lone is going to be heard much more clearly over a fuzz rhythm than an additional wide fuzz tone.
When harmonizing guitar lines, the point is to blend. Each guitarist should consider using a similar tone in order to achieve this blend, and sound like one voice. In dueling guitar solos, ensure that the guitar tones are different enough to add unique texture, yet also similar enough so that neither is drowned out. A light fuzz tone interweaving riffs with a medium overdrive tone is going to sound much better than a mild overdrive tone trying to be heard alongside a deeply saturated metal distortion tone from the other guitarist.
Use Your Fingers to Balance Guitar Frequency
Most guitarists will graduate to a smaller pedal board as time goes on. A shift will happen. The emphasis will become more on the choice of guitar and amp, with a few select pedals added for minimally needed effects. Often times, the compressor pedals can go by the wayside as guitarists learn to use the touch of their fingers to balance their guitar frequency within the mix. This takes quite a bit of skill, but is essential to the maturation to the guitar player. Whether using compression pedals or not, a touch-sensitive approach will turn average guitar playing into listenable music.
So, take a step back (on your touch) when it comes time to play behind the singer’s voice during the verse. Step up the touch a bit when it comes time for the chorus. When it comes time to solo, do you have any volume range left? If not, you might consider keeping a quality boost on your pedal board for this reason. Or, consider a volume pedal.
In a trio, you’ll be able to more acutely manage your volume range without the aid of pedals, and can usually step into a solo and still have room left to rock.
Decide where you are in your playing. If you’re still learning, but already passionate about tone and playing in bands, go out and grab one of the compressor pedals recommended above. If you’re becoming more advanced and feeling cluttered, try slimming down your pedalboard by taking off the compression (along with some other effects) and focus on your fingers. In the end, there’s more than one means to an end. Choose what’s right for you in order to ensure you’re guitar frequency is heard in the mix.